Wales meets India in jazz collaboration

On tour in India, Welsh pianist Dave Jones says the experience of playing a few feet away from expertly played sarangi and tabla is something he'll never forget

Following Burum’s week-long tour of India in early 2014 (documented in JJ in May 2014), and again with the support of Wales Arts International and India-based jazz agent Emma De Decker (of Gatecrash/JazzIndia and director of Goa JazzFest), the band returned to the subcontinent in late November 2015. This time it was for two weeks, to perform initially as Burum with a modified line-up minus saxophonist Daniel Williams and flute and pipes player Ceri Rhys Matthews (who were unfortunately unavailable due to prior commitments), but with the addition of Indian guitarist Aditya Balani whom the band met in India in 2014 when delivering a workshop at the GMI (Global Music Institute) in Delhi, where he is the director.

This modified five-piece line-up, with guitarist Aditya Balani joined by band leader Tomos Williams on trumpet, yours truly on piano, Aidan Thorne on electric bass, and Mark O’Connor on drums, enjoyed gigs at the spacious semi-open air Shisha Jazz Café in Pune, G5A in Mumbai (a newly opened arts venue), and the Pianoman Bar in Delhi. The Mumbai performance was followed by an interesting Q&A session between audience and band, and unknown to the band, the Pianoman Bar in Delhi was to become their jazz home for nearly a week, with regular invites to late night jam sessions accompanied by incredible hospitality from the owner of this fine new venue, Arjun Guptal, who seems to have the vision and financial backing to make this and future venues in other cities a success in the long term. The hospitality enjoyed in particular by the band at the Pianoman was no exception throughout the tour, and would put some Western venues to shame in this respect.

Delhi was the band’s base for almost  a week, where before the new collaboration began, Burum delivered a workshop at the GMI, the theme of which was "Keepin' it real: authenticity and ownership in jazz and folk music", which included student performances with the band, leading to an interesting discussion including Q&A relating to specific versions of jazz in different geographical locations, and ultimately to the question “What is the jazz aesthetic?”, eliciting responses from Williams and Jones relating to improvised interaction and swing/swung rhythm respectively.

East meets West: initial collaboration in Delhi
The following day, Burum and Aditya Balani met up with Indian classical musicians Suhail Yusuf Khan (sarangi and vocals) and Vishal Nagar (tabla and vocals) to form the new seven-piece band Khamira, the name being an Indian translation of the Welsh word Burum, meaning yeast. The three rehearsals of a few hours each were held on separate days at the GMI (when there was a room available that didn’t affect student rehearsals and practice), working on material that was a fairly equal mixture of adaptations of existing Burum arrangements, compositions by Aditya Balani and Aidan Thorne, alongside Basant, a composition introduced by Suhail Yusuf Khan and Vishal Nagar, based entirely on an Indian scale where at least the lower half of the ascending version consists of whole-tone intervals, and in its slightly altered descending form uses the fifth as well as the minor sixth. The end result was a track mirroring the only "cover" version used; an interpretation of Miles’s Great Expectations.

The first rehearsal in particular highlighted both the differences and similarities between the Eastern and Western musicians’ use of musical terminology and ways of dealing with the rhythmic aspect of the music, but this was all part of the nature of this collaboration, and finding a new way of playing as a very different international seven-piece band. On a personal level, I must say that the experience of playing a few feet away from expertly played sarangi and tabla and hearing those distinctive sounds and voices was something I’ll never forget, along with being a part of and witnessing the gradual merging of Eastern and Western influences, for what seemed like a genuine collaboration as opposed to a collision of cultures.

In this new seven-piece, the roles of the band members changed in comparison to what they would be in Burum. For example, new compositions were also used, alongside the usual arrangements of folk tunes, and fewer solos were required from trumpet and piano, in order to accommodate additional soloists, vocals, and paired instrumental features where tabla and sarangi, and tabla and drums would interact. In fact trumpeter Tomos Williams’ role became a little more like an understated version of the Miles Davis directorial approach, semiotics and all, and guitarist Aditya Balani, with at least one foot firmly entrenched in Western jazz, became a subtle fulcrum for the merging of West and East.

Rehearsals over, the first gig for the newly formed Khamira was at the British Council in Delhi, in their newly refurbished theatre, warmly received by an enthusiastic and informed audience, which was also the case at the other performances.

The Jazz Cats are here: The Goa and Kolkata Jazz Festivals
Next stop, the Bb club in Bangalore, and the contrast of a jazz club setting for the performance, as opposed to the more formal concert experience of the night before, followed by the culmination of the collaboration with performances at the Goa and Kolkata Jazz Festivals. Despite being in the early part of the Indian winter, Goa was still bathing in waves of heat, even at night time, which was when the Saturday performances began. Visitors were welcomed to the Goa Jazz Festival with a banner declaring “The Jazz Cats are here”, and Khamira, the first of the jazz cats on the Saturday evening, enjoyed a great open-air stage setting and audience, with the top of the lovely old Fender Rhodes piano increasingly resembling a nature programme scene of insects as the performance unravelled. 

Finally, on to Kolkata, and another open-air performance at the Dalhousie Institute as part of JazzFest 2015; Kolkata’s annual jazz festival. The Dalhousie Institute is a private, family orientated club which has held jazz events for numerous decades, including performances by Herbie Hancock and John McLaughlin, and apparently Dizzy Gillespie played his last gig there. This final Khamira performance of the tour confirmed to the band that the collaboration had actually resulted in forming what genuinely felt like a band, rather than two separate units trying to play together.

Photos by Hindy Warhole

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